Across the nation at this time of year, parents are sending their children back to school. Although all five of mine are now adults, I remember well the feeling of getting them all back into their school routines, and how their first day back seemed like a vacation for me! This feeling was captured a while ago by a television commercial for a major office supply store, in which a sour-looking child was accompanied by an ecstatic parent loading up on school supplies and gleefully dancing with a shopping cart to the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
In an etymological sense, though, it is our children who are being sent off for a vacation. The English word school derives from the ancient Greek schole, which means leisure. This word was picked up by the Romans as schola, from which it passed into our language. The Romans used another word for school too—ludus, which means play-place. To go school is to go to a place of play and leisure.
Most parents, however, don’t want their kids merely to play and rest at school. True, they understand that in the very early grades, school activities are generally playful. But they expect some learning to take place through the play. And as their children approach adulthood, parents expect them to learn by hard work rather than by play. If a growing child returns from school regularly with no homework, parents will soon take the situation up with school officials. How is it that places of learning were originally considered places of leisure and play, but today we expect work to be done in such places?
The answer is that there is a category of activity somewhere between work and play, a category that we tend to forget as we become adults subject to the pressure of making a living. We know the effort, focus, and stress of work, and we know the playfulness, unwinding, and relaxation of leisure. But we don’t often reflect on the third category, which could be called “serious leisure” or “serious play.”
Serious play has neither the intense, energy-draining labor of work nor the carefree, consequence-less frivolity of popular leisure. In serious play, we engage with something fully, and with an earnest focus, but we do so in the spirit of a pleasure-traveler on an extended holiday, taking whatever byways appear promising. It is a sort of purposeful wandering—we are on the lookout for precious things, but we are not going to be disappointed if they don’t appear on a fixed timetable.
This is our way of studying at St. John’s College. We provide a community in which our students can engage in serious play with the greatest achievements of western civilization. Although a great deal of work goes into daily preparation, once class begins we cultivate a spirit of leisure, of unhurried examination of the day’s readings. Along the way, all participants help one another to find whatever nuggets of knowledge or wisdom happen to lie in the path of that hour’s conversation. We believe that this serious play is the most effective, most insight-producing, and most enduring way to study—and our experience of seventy-five years convinces us that we are right.
While their children are practicing serious leisure, however, parents all too often forget that there is such a thing. The pressures of life—of making a living, of raising a family, of maintaining a relationship, of keeping up a home—push most adults into recognizing only two modes of activity: work and play, up time and down time. They may work hard and play hard, but they seldom engage in serious leisure, seldom contemplate something—a book, an artwork, a scene in nature, a living being, a turn of phrase—with the sort of dispassionate, unhurried intensity that opens the doors to surprising insights or new discoveries. Parents need to go “back to school” as much as their children, because the treadmill existence of work and play, work and play, wears down our capacity for serious, thoughtful contemplation and speculation—both of which are the wellsprings of regeneration and creative activity.
That is why St. John’s provides opportunities in Annapolis and Santa Fe for adults to join in our special kind of serious play—Community Seminars and Preceptorials, in which participants can discuss a great book or topic over a weekend, or once a week for between three and eight weeks per semester; Fine Arts Workshops, in which participants can learn a new skill (or get better at an old one) like drawing or making pottery; the Summer Classics programs on both campuses, in which participants can discuss great books over an intense long weekend or a more leisurely long week; Executive Seminars held in several cities once a month for nine months; exhibitions at the Mitchell Gallery in Annapolis, which allow for the contemplation of wonderful paintings, drawings, and sculptures; Music on the Hill in Santa Fe, where families gather in the summers to hear fine musical performances; not to mention the many lectures and concerts we provide to the public each year. We know how important it is for adults to make time for serious play, and we try to use our experience and our many rich resources to provide opportunities to the larger community of which we are a part.
Parents should take advantage of whatever resources are available in their communities to go “back to school” themselves, because serious play—that middle ground between productive work and relaxing leisure—nourishes the soul, inspires the heart, and provides the insight needed to continue leading a full and meaningful life.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu